The Favorite Budapest Places Of A New York Times Journalist

Stephen Hiltner in Budapest. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

Stephen Hiltner is an editor and photojournalist at the Travel desk of The New York Times. This summer, he was in Budapest for three months to rediscover the city where he spent part of his childhood. Stephen’s trip yielded a beautiful essay woven through with family history, observations from the street level, and plenty of memorable photos. Recently, I took the opportunity to ask some questions about his experience.

What brought you to Budapest?

The literal answer is a Pan Am 747, back in July of 1990. At the time my dad worked for General Electric, which, a year earlier, had purchased Tungsram, a Hungarian light-bulb company. We — my dad, mom, elder brother and sister, grandmother and I — were among the small number of American families that moved to Hungary in the early years of its transition from communism to capitalism.

More recently, though, I felt compelled to return in light of all the Western political coverage that Hungary has received. I came for three months, beginning in early April. My hope was that I could get to know the place — learn its rhythms, appreciate its culture, observe the life of everyday Hungarians — from the loftier perch of adulthood.

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Stephen seated between his elder siblings, Nicholas and Emelia, in 1994. The Danube and the Hungarian Parliament building appear in the background.

What is the most striking difference between the city today and the Budapest you experienced as a child?

I remember when the first Pizza Hut opened in Budapest in 1992, on the corner of Király utca and Erzsébet körút. And the main reason I remember its opening — I was never crazy about the food — is because there were so few links at the time between Hungary and America, my home. Really, there were very few links between Hungary and any country outside of Central or Eastern Europe. So the mere fact that an iconic foreign institution, American in this case, had suddenly appeared in the middle of the city was borderline astonishing. (Also, the waiters had these fancy handheld remotes that would zap your order from the side of your table to a receiver of some kind in the corner of the restaurant, which was just about the most technologically advanced thing I’d ever seen.)

This year, within a few weeks of arriving, I found authentic sushi at Kicsi Japán, delicious Eastern cuisine (“from Cairo to Calcutta”) at Pingrumba, and mouthwatering Afghan food at Kabul Restaurant — not to mention a pretty darn good cheeseburger at Rizmajer Beerhouse.

All of which is to say: Budapest is a cosmopolitan city now, for better or worse. Budapest was not a cosmopolitan city in 1990.

Were there any cafes or bars to which you’ve found yourself returning?

I was working New York City hours during my stay, which meant that my days were largely free until 3 pm, after which I worked until around 11 pm. Kelet Kávézó, on Bartók Béla út, was a lifesaver: It was open late, had a cozy atmosphere, and served delicious and intriguing food. I could hole up with my laptop for a couple hours, have a meal, sip a late-night cappuccino, and finish up my workday.

The area was familiar to me because, as a kid, my family’s piano teacher, Balázs Szokolay, lived right around the corner. It was fun to see how lively the neighborhood has become.

What’s your favorite Hungarian food or pastry? Can you recommend a Budapest restaurant for people to try it?

It’s cliché of me, I know, to plug kakaós csiga, but it would be disingenuous if I claimed to have enjoyed (or to have consumed) any pastry more. Think what you want of their chic shop on Rákóczi tér, but VAJ has the best csiga in the city, by a wide margin. I’d put Pékműhely Bartók’s in second place, followed by Három Tarka Macska’s.

Cherries were my other obsession. Kolibri Kávézó was the only shop I found that reliably carried Frutomania’s cherry juice, which is otherworldly. (Kolibri also has fantastic fresh sandwiches and pastries.) The best cherry strudel I found was at Évi Rétes, on Nagymező utca. And the greatest selection of actual cherries was at Lehel Market on Saturday mornings — which you had recommended to me! So thank you for that.

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The Lehel Market, early on a Saturday morning in July. Photo: Stephen Hiltner

What was the highlight of your stay?

Reconnecting with people from my childhood — with Laci, the wonderfully generous (and remarkably fastidious) man who drove my siblings and me to school each day; with Ms. Tracy, my kindergarten teacher whom I hadn’t seen in 30 years; with Balázs, our old piano teacher. I visited my old school, the American International School of Budapest, on several occasions — to teach photography classes, and to talk with graduating students about life after high school. No doubt those were the most memorable, and meaningful, moments of my visit.

What tip do you have for visitors to get the most out of their time in Budapest?

Find your way to the lesser known districts.

My favorite pastime was meandering through the city’s grand cemeteries: Kerepesi, Farkasréti, Kozma Street. Each is full of magnificent art, and all three lie outside the center of Budapest, which means that, coming and going, you begin to get a broader sense of the city.

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Lujza Blaha’s monumental grave in the Kerepesi cemetery. Photo: Stephen Hiltner

In the end I found that Budapest’s cemeteries were microcosms of the city itself: trimmed and stately in their well-trafficked stretches, and unkempt at their fringes. It’s always enjoyable, of course, to see the stately side of something. But I find that it’s usually more instructive to observe life at the fringes.

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An ill-kept grave in the cemetery’s far reaches. Photo: Stephen Hiltner

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